Today is 50 years since the unprovoked attack on the USS LIBERTY that killed 34 Americans and wounded 174. This attack was the highest casualty rate ever inflicted on a U.S. naval vessel, with 7 out of every 10 crew members killed or injured! To remember this tragic event, StationHYPO is posting a five part series starting today.
The USS Liberty Story
By Ernie Gallo (USS LIBERTY survivor), Phil Tourney and Lauren Armstrong
On June 8, 1967, the USS Liberty was attacked by Israeli Defense Forces while she was in international waters. The Israeli government said the U.S. vessel had been mistakenly identified as an Egyptian horse carrier and that the attack was a case of mistaken identity — “a tragic accident.” A U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry confirmed the Israeli position, but surviving crewmembers, including several FRA shipmates, wholeheartedly believe the attack was an intentional and willful act that killed 34 Americans and wounded 174 others. Survivors have fought for the past 49 years to have their perspective heard and a proper investigation undertaken. This is their story.
The USS Liberty was a technical research ship, equipped with the day’s latest technology and manned by Navy communications technicians (CTs) and other specialized crew members who held high-level security clearances. A repurposed WWII Victory cargo ship, she was lightly armed with four .50 caliber machine guns for repelling boarders. Her military mission in 1967 was to monitor, intercept, and record all radio transmissions in the ambient ether. In the days leading up to Israel’s Six-Day War with several Arab nations, she was positioned off the coast of Egypt. Although the United States remained neutral in the conflict, Liberty’s crew continued recovering and reporting on communications traffic in the area.
June 8, 1967, dawned bright and clear, providing morning watchstanders an unencumbered view of the Israeli photo-reconnaissance aircraft that flew over the ship in the early hours of the day. These planes subjected the ship to intense scrutiny for six hours, as they conducted multiple flights over the ship, sometimes as low as 200 feet above the deck, and orbited Liberty’s position. Like all U.S. military vessels, Liberty had traditional American markings: a hull number (GTR-5) on her bow and her name (USS LIBERTY) emblazoned across her stern. She was also flying a large U.S. flag that was standing out in the breeze on this sunny day.
Firefighter Specialist Third Class (SPF3) Phil Tourney (FRA member at large) was assigned to Sounding and Security aboard Liberty, which meant he was responsible for making sure the tanks of potable water were good and checking the watertight integrity of the ship. He was below decks when the “visitors” arrived, but his shipmates told him about the planes, which “were unquestionably Israeli, as the Star of David was easy to see. The guys described them as low and slow, and there was a general belief amongst the crew that Washington and Tel Aviv were working together to make sure we were safe. Knowing our ‘friends’ were checking on us caused the general mood to improve drastically.”
The Air Attack
At approximately 1400 hours, with Liberty about 17 miles off the Gaza coast, the ship’s radar crew observed three high-speed aircraft heading toward the ship. Without warning, the fighter aircraft launched an attack on Liberty, assaulting the ship with rockets, cannon fire and napalm for approximately 25 minutes.
Larry Bowen (FRA Member at Large) was a 21-year-old CT2 Radioman in the Radio Research shop, when he “heard what sounded like large, heavy deck chains being dragged across the deck. It was rocket and gunfire coming from the Israeli strafing attack. We heard the General Quarters call, followed by ‘This is not a drill.’ I was below decks, so I didn’t have a visual perspective, but there were several flights that sent rockets, armor-piercing .50 caliber rounds, cannon fire and napalm down on us.”
Tourney was returning to his workstation in the shipfitter’s shop when the attack began. “As soon as I stepped in and closed the hatch, I heard an order over the PA to test the motor whale boat. A few moments after that, I heard a huge explosion right next to the hatch I’d just closed. The only logical explanation in my mind was that whoever was carrying out that order had done something wrong and the whale boat had blown up. The idea that we were under attack was the farthest thing from my mind.”
Tourney made his way to his battle station, where his duty involved making sure all persons in the damage control party were accounted for and ready to take care of the ship in the event of a mishap or attack. As he was noting those who were missing amid the torrent of explosions, he suddenly noticed “a thousand points of light as holes began to appear everywhere around us. As the rocket and cannon fire struck the side and deck of the ship, sunlight was coming in where before there was none.”
He was hit with a four-inch piece of shrapnel before he moved his party to the main deck. “We were not prepared for what we would see there,” he continued. He and his shipmate Rick Aimetti immediately went to the forward gun tub to look for survivors. “I saw nothing but a pile of human remains. We knew there was no life to be saved there, so we moved on … all while machine gun bullets and rocket fire were raining down on us. Dead and wounded bodies were everywhere on the main deck. In between volleys of fire, we darted out from safe cover, grabbed the ones who were still alive, one at a time, dragged them across the deck and threw then down the hatch. Others down below picked them up and took them someplace where they could be treated.”
Once the decks were cleared, Tourney was ordered to the log room, the location of Damage Control Central. “As was standard procedure, my supervisor was burning documents to prevent the enemy from getting any useful information. I kept thinking, ‘Who but an enemy would be attacking us?’”
He then went to the bridge, where he saw that Captain William McGonagle was badly wounded in the leg, but still calmly and professionally in command. “There were rocket and cannon holes everywhere, and burning napalm was dripping through the holes and into the bridge compartment,” he recalls. The CO2 canisters were basically useless against the intense heat of the napalm fires, so he requested a fire team with water hoses. “In hindsight, I realize this was just a waste of time, since the hoses had been shot up like a snake hit with birdshot.”
He left the bridge to secure more CO2 canisters and, upon his return, he slipped in something wet and fell violently on his back. When he got up, he realized he had slipped in the blood of his good friend Francis Brown, who’d been shot in the head. “It’s something no human being should ever have to see, especially when it’s your good friend. My first thought was, ‘Those Arab bastards just blew my friend to pieces.’ How could I have thought otherwise? I figured this attack [on our ship] was the Arabs’ last gasp after having just gotten their clocks cleaned by the Israelis [who waged a sneak attack on the Arab nations on June 5th as part of the Six-Day War] and they’d naturally be unhappy with America. We were a defenseless ship and an easy target. It would be like a turkey shoot for them, giving them a trophy to hang on the wall and talk about years later in order to lessen the sting of what was such a humiliating loss.” Tourney’s suspicions were strengthened when he learned that the attacking aircraft had no markings on them.
At the beginning of the attack, the Liberty’s radiomen and electronic technicians attempted to send a May day. Their SOS did not identify the attacker, as it was unknown at that time. The transmission antenna had been damaged during the initial stages of the attack, but a makeshift antenna was rigged and calls for help were sent. There is reason to believe that those distress signals were jammed by the attackers, but eventually the calls for backup were received and, about 15 minutes into the Israeli air attack, the USS Saratoga responded by launching fighter aircraft to assist Liberty. Although the crew wouldn’t learn of it until later, the rescue flights were aborted within minutes after launch.
“The White House recalled all aircraft, abandoning the USS Liberty and subjecting her to an additional hour of an Israeli turkey shoot,” says Ernie Gallo, who was a CT2 at the time of the attack. “In disbelief, RADM Raymond Geis, Sixth Fleet Carrier Division Commander, challenged the order, as was his right and responsibility in this situation. Unbelievably, the White House reaffirmed the order to recall all aircraft despite Liberty’s plea for help. Without a full and complete investigation, it cannot be determined if Sixth Fleet aircraft would have prevented the subsequent Israeli torpedo boat attack, that accounted for 25 of the 34 crew deaths that day.”
Gallo didn’t personally hear the exchange, but he and other crewmembers quote President Johnson’s reported command: “Recall the damn planes. I don’t care who dies; I’m not going to embarrass my allies.”
“USS America was able to communicate with Washington, D.C., and had an open line with President Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. The order to recall the United States strike force was given by McNamara,” says Bob Casale, who reported to Liberty in 1964 as a CT2. He was not aboard during the attack, but has done considerable research and estimates the air attack was ending at about the same time U.S. jets left the USS Saratoga. Casale and many of his shipmates believe that if the U.S. jets had not been recalled, they would have arrived on the scene about the same time Israeli torpedo boats were posturing for their attack on Liberty. They contend that, if the American jets had been deployed as originally ordered, the 25 deaths that resulted from the torpedo blast might have been prevented.